Jim White

What is Solskjaer waiting for?

Jim White

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer seemed the perfect choice for Aston Villa as their new manager.

Young, bright, determined, keen to build something and — crucially — with no known association with Birmingham City, he was clearly streets ahead of the other candidates for the job.

After meeting him last week, the Villa owner Randy Lerner must have thought his problems were over: this is a man as impressive in conversation as he was on a football pitch. Sharp, clever, decisive, he also - as he demonstrated leading Molde to their first ever Norwegian championship in his first season in charge - knows how to organise not just a team, but a club. Plus, there is something cold-eyed about his demeanour that suggests a real iron in his soul. He may not be flash, arrogant or self-obsessed, but he sure is ruthless.

Throughout his playing career, he was perfectly happy to allow opponents to confuse his boyish look with a fragility of intent. Anyone who was thus distracted usually found themselves on the wrong end of a four-goal rout: as all finishers do, the baby-faced assassin clearly enjoyed slipping a stiletto between the ribs of an opponent's ambition.

Now as a manager, if anyone mistakes his appearance for that of a naif they are quickly disabused.

And yet, despite some confident noises emerging from Villa Park earlier this week, Solskjaer is not going to Birmingham. After seeming certain to take the job, talks with the club owner apparently lasting over four hours apparently persuaded him to stay in Molde. Thus he will remain in a stadium perched on the banks of a fjord that must rank as the most picturesque setting in the whole of European football. Though, presumably, it wasn't the view that swung him.

Solskjaer was ear-marked for management long before he retired as a player. Sir Alex Ferguson reckoned that he had rarely encountered anyone as adept at reading a game from the bench. While other substitutes would be self-absorbed, unable to concentrate on play in which they were not involved, Solskjaer would watch, analyse, assess an opponent's weakness, ready to exploit it the moment he was unleashed into the action. As Solskjaer now admits, in a sense that strength became a weakness. His effectiveness from the bench largely contributed to that becoming his default starting position; he made, by his alertness, his manager's decision easy.

But when he retired, when the knees that had been compromised in that celebratory slide across the Camp Nou turf in 1999 finally gave way, there was no doubt he was destined to remain in the dugout. Ferguson persuaded him to become part of the United coaching set-up, where his ability not only to diagnose problems but quickly to communicate solutions set him apart as a future champion manager.

His move to take charge of Molde in the autumn of 2010 was perfectly timed. Not only did it tally with his own career development, it allowed him to give his growing children a taste of the kind of upbringing in Norway's beautiful Artic north that he had so enjoyed. The pull of the fjords is strong. The family live in Kristiansund, the town an hour's drive from Molde where he was brought up; they have a cabin in the hills where they ski all winter. And he maintains an active interest in family life, still coaching one of his son's Sunday morning football teams. Which, if nothing else, must be a complete nightmare for his rival coaches; imagine turning up with your under-11s and discovering that the opposition are being organised by a bloke who not only scored the winner in a Champions League final but is the current boss of the winners of the Norwegian league.

Yet Solskjaer knows the very thing that makes Molde so attractive to the young family man ultimately stalls his progress as a football man. Carefree, crime-free, pollution-free it may be, but it is also a backwater. Even in Norway, Molde's progress is viewed with less interest and excitement than that of clubs in England's Premier League. Every weekend, more Norwegians head over for games in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and London than attend home fixtures in Molde's impressive new ground. In Norway, the expectation, almost from the moment he returned home, has been that Solskjaer will one day soon be heading back west.

Deciding how and when to move from his first job in management was always going to be a delicate decision. Get it wrong, choose a club without the cash or stability required to build a dynasty and he could crash and burn before his career was really underway. History is littered with those who made the wrong choice. For every Alan Pardew and Brendan Rogers who have been gifted a second chance, there are a dozen Paul Inces and David O'Learys whose star has quickly fizzled out.

Yet, for a man of clear ambition, Villa seemed ideal: a place temporarily disillusioned, perhaps, but not in disarray, it could be quickly turned round into something substantial. Plus, there is clearly money there. To Lerner's evident disappointment, however, Solskjaer decided to stay put.

Which makes you wonder: what is he waiting for? Whatever his personal strengths, at Molde he will never gain the experience necessary to step straight into a job at a Champions League side. We can only hope he has not just turned down his best chance to make his name.

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